Review: Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It by Howard Jacobson

Elberry reviews Howard Jacobson’s collection of essays. WARNING: Below the fold the language is very strong and unasterisked. But also very funny.

What a f***er, I thought. What a grotesque, big-nosed, loud, clownish, apple polishing literary f***er.

It was 2003 and I was looking at Howard Jacobson. He was sitting at a table in my cafe, the only place to get food or drink in the bullshit Biennale art bullshit in Venice. I was one of the handful of almost unpaid, overworked waiters, catering to vile glitterati and media buffoons. And there he was, the f***er, sitting at a table and bellowing, in his grating man-of-the-people voice: ” – and she said, you’re the most obnoxious man I’ve ever met!” His hangers-on vented an appreciative laughter. What a fucker, I thought. What a cunt.

Later, I heard him complaining in his grating man-of-the-people, poor-but-honest voice to an Australian waitress, to the effect that he was a Writer and would write an article about the terrible service. The service was terrible because there weren’t enough waiters; naturally, the pompous, overfed journalists, millionaires, “artists” and art critics blamed the waiters for this. Jacobson was merely one of the many assholes who, having never had a real job, blamed the almost unpaid staff for having to wait 20 minutes, in his man-of-the-people voice.

With this in mind I settled grimly down to Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It, a volume of Jacobson’s essays. What a fucker, I thought, opening the book. He writes books. And other fuckers publish them. Then they go to bullshit art festivals and exploit working men.

Clever fucker, though. Here he writes about Ceri Randall, a librarian fired for evicting a porn-hunting computer user from the library:

Call me a pedant, but I think of a library as a place that houses books. Books which educated opinion deems us to be the better, intellectually and spiritually, for having read. If you wonder who should be given the responsibility of deciding which those books are, wonder no more. I will do it.

I agree with him, the fucker. Page 36 and he’s onto opera, with an essay beginning:

Just blown the best part of two hundred smackers staring into the back of someone’s bald head. This is called going to the opera.

I want to call him up and advise him to go to the local opera society in Kassel, which is superb and, more importantly, only costs 35 € for a front row seat. Hey fucker, I want to advise him, their Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was superb, you should have seen it. Hold on, I’m thinking about calling up Jacobson in the early hours, to give him advice about Wagner. That’s strange. Why would I do that? Later, he idles in a Scottish graveyard; writes an essay on the inscription:

DIED 14 MARCH 1881

The vulgar, self-important buffoon in the cafe would have complained about the lack of graveside armchairs and drinks. But it seems that a different Jacobson is at work in the essay; a good Jacobson:

Tempting, in these fractious ambitious times, to view such a measured memorial sadly. Here lies some mute inglorious Milton, died soon and died obscure. If only Archibald McGlashan had shared in our twentieth-century advantages he might have got somewhere, become famous like Sting, had his own series on telly – Sex in the Grave – at the least made it on to Big Brother. Never mind that he’s dead; even alive, Teacher of English is too modest an achievement for us to contemplate without melancholy. The poor bastard, we think, forgetting that it wasn’t all teenage junkies with abusive parents in the 1870s. The poor bastard, forgetting that you were allowed to enthuse your pupils once, that there was an exhilaration in passing on the baton of learning and enquiry, enfranchising young minds with the best of thought and feeling, because ‘best’ wasn’t then an unacceptable and outmoded elitist concept.

I mark this with pencil. Maybe he isn’t a total fucker. Page 104 and he writes about attending a female bar mitzvah, sat behind two giggling teenage girls:

I am a man of wisdom so I know that giggling is something you do when you are nervous and self-conscious and need not mean you have a disrespectful nature. But the giggling won’t stop – the girls even giggle over the name Hashem itself, an offence which brought a visit from the angel of destruction in the good old days – and the generosity with which the congregation at first greeted their girlish hysteria has turned to embarrassment, to shame, and in some hearts to anger.

In my heart, for example – mine, not the rabbi’s – it has turned to boiling rage. Funny that, for as a rule I welcome a seasoning of blasphemy. Or maybe not so funny, since to be a blasphemer you must understand belief, whereas to be a giggler you need understand nothing.

I begin to warm to Jacobson. This is not a heart without rage. Nor is it the simplistic kneejerk rage of an American puritan or Guardianista. Thirty pages later he manages to combine war crimes with Jordan’s fake tits, noting that the former has aroused strong condemnation from John Gray:

He calls an inhumanity an inhumanity, and a debasement a debasement. He is not alone in saying it but he says it well: that the Americans have come to see the people of Iraq as ‘virtually subhuman’, in proof whereof he cites the parading of Iraqi prisoners naked in front of American women soldiers, on dog leads, with women’s underwear on their heads, and understands this as not just any old humiliation but a systematic assault on their ‘identity and values’. You locate the prisoner’s locus of shame – in this instance very different from your own – and you outrage it.

Meanwhile, we have fake breasts and grotesque celebrities; the famed and lauded state philosopheress Baroness Warnock:

[…] joined other women of intellectual distinction in praising Jordan for independent-mindedness vis-à-vis the size and constituent materials of her breasts, candour vis-à-vis her sexual relations with men, womanly ingenuity vis-à-vis her quest to win I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, and exemplary resolution vis-à-vis making herself more rich and famous than she already was. Thus ethics in our time: if it earns, it must be good.

His point is that one can respectably decry war crimes, but not monstrously fake breasts and meretricious celebrity. It is part of the critic’s job to discriminate and Jacobson is eminently discriminating. He is, I think, right that both torture and Big Brother demean and adulterate human virtue; that the former is the more hideously manifest should not exempt the latter.

Jacobson thinks libraries are for books, and good books at that. He likes graveyards. He likes Wagner. He is, I decide, my kind of chap, a traditionalist of sorts. I begin to wonder, where does he stand on tweed? On dogs? Does he own a dobermann? Does he regard Sunderland with horror and disgust? Has he been pursued by angered cows? Is he a pie man? Dobermann or not, he is clear that things are heading Sunderlandwards; apropos a Radio 4 programme debating ‘dumbing down’:

Say ‘dumbing down’ and you’re dumbing down. There are other words beginning with ‘d’ to describe the will to destroy a culture. Denigrating, disparaging, dishonouring.

By page 312 I realise that Howardson is extremely well-read, that behind the orange-squeezing media buffoon in his mafia shirts, there is a heart full of love and rage. He isn’t afraid to take a stand against out and out socialist levellers and the Volvo-driving
Chardonnay-drinkers for whom all is perenially rosy:

I don’t recall whether someone on the programme mounted the usual defence of complacency; namely that people have been complaining about falling standards since the beginning of time – as though the longevity of a complaint proves its fallaciousness, or the fact that someone said we were getting sillier three thousand years ago must mean that we aren’t.

There is something rightly Biblical about Jacobson; not merely his big-nosed Jewishness but his filthy humour and austere rage: I imagine him as some unaccountable Old Testament prophet, albeit clad in mafia shirts and not ashes and crushed locust. He has a deep historical sense; alert to, and undeceived by, the surface of things. On a particularly moronic statement by Margaret Hodge, to the effect that people don’t feel “at ease” with the Proms (and hence it must be politically re-educated or demolished):

Nothing about this country has ever put me at my ease. I didn’t feel at ease when processions of weeping Catholics passed my house carrying plaster saints. Didn’t feel at ease at school when they sang hymns in assembly about famous men I’d never heard of, or accused ‘some boy’ of stealing toilet rolls. Didn’t feel at ease at university when hearties in blue blazers ran up and down the towpath of the Cam shouting ‘Olly, Olly, Jesus!’ and moral tutors called me Abrahamson, Isaacson, Greenberg and Cohen. Don’t feel at ease in the Athenaeum, or Glyndebourne, or the Courts of Justice, or any police station, racetrack, garden fete, rap concert or pole-dancing establishment.

Many are the ways a person whose family hasn’t owned land on these islands for a thousand years might feel frightened, discomfited, embarrassed, or just not one hundred per cent at home. That will hold true for most of the population in one place or another, even those who do not go back to the Domesday Book. There is always something to fear in the rites of others – whether older or younger, or of another class, religion or colour – but alongside the fear might exist, if we allow it, curiosity, admiration, and why not? – the deep affection of the outsider looking in.

This is more or less my feeling, as a racial mongrel. One need not belong, to love. The English are routinely admonished and harangued to adapt to incoming cultures, to surrender their own prejudices in favour of the prejudices of others, as if Englishness is a priori inferior.

But it is also entirely possible to belong through education and loyalty and heart, even if you are a fucker like Howard Jacobson.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It by Howard Jacobson

  1. Brit
    November 1, 2012 at 13:48

    By coincidence I’m reading The Finkler Question, and I have to say it is very, very funny.

    November 1, 2012 at 13:58

    really enjoyed this review Elberry! Book is now straight on my amazon list, sounds terrific

    November 1, 2012 at 14:58

    One need not belong, to love.

    Nor love to belong. At least, I think not.

    He sounds like a British Mordecai Richler. Oh, I do beg pardon, of course Richler is a Canadian Jacobson (you people can be worse than the Yanks). Richler managed to professionally mock and insult just about every region and group in the country, usually in earthy terms, and he managed to insult a lot of important people personally. Nonetheless, he is still remembered and revered as a native son who lovingly captured the essence of his country and made us all proud.

    Thank-you, Elberry. Just checked to see if it’s available here. It is. I’m leaving work early.

    November 2, 2012 at 10:50

    Topping review, Elberry. Very easy to lump HJ in the company of Old Curmudgeons’ and most of his peers now do, but he is much more than that: curious; funny; and, in the end, optimistic about the potential within each person.

    His crime was to breach one of the numerous bien-pensant no-no’s; once you’ve done that there is no coming back for you, but you do then have the liberty of actually saying what you think rather than what people like you are supposed to think.

    November 2, 2012 at 23:31

    Well, I did go out and buy it and I’m now about half-way through it. That man should be declared a national treasure.

    November 3, 2012 at 18:57

    I’ll get hold of this by the grumpy old git. I think his novels are terrible, but his non-fiction excellent – try Roots Schmoots for instance.

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